If you’re somebody who isn’t fond of a big chocolate bar with a cup of tea at the end of a long day or who can happily say ‘no thanks’ when the packet of Jaffa Cakes is being passed around after dinner, I salute you. I don’t understand you, but I salute you.

If, on the other hand, you’re like me and can barely go a day without consuming some form of chocolate, you may be interested in reading more about cacao.

Last year, in an attempt to lessen my slightly worrying, but not-yet-debilitating, addiction to the brown stuff, I finally succumbed to Instagram marketing and influencers’ posts and invested in a few blocks of raw cacao. My hope was to replace my evening snacking routine with a cup of ‘healthy’ hot chocolate.

What is cacao?

Cacao is the seed from which cocoa and chocolate are made. The seeds aka cacao beans, grow on the Theobroma cacao, a small evergreen tree native to the Amazon rainforest.

The use of the words cacao versus cocoa on chocolate product labels can be quite inconsistent and varies by brand. However, most bean-to-bar chocolatiers use the term cacao for the pod and beans before they’re fermented and the term cocoa after fermentation.

The blocks I ordered, from Galway company Nibbed Cacao, arrived and I began a new routine that involved my husband, John, and I boiling two cups of milk in a saucepan, chopping up a decent chunk of the block, adding some cinnamon and honey and then retiring to the couch clutching our cups and valiantly ignoring the ‘goodies press’.

The verdict? It worked for a long time. That’s not to say I gave up my treats completely, far from it, but I did reduce the amount I was eating after dinner, which tends to be my biggest issue.

The benefits

Here’s why incorporating cacao into your diet could be instrumental to helping you be a healthier, happier and more productive version of yourself.

  • Healthy nutrients
  • You may be surprised to learn that cacao is a nutritional powerhouse packed with over 700 health-promoting compounds which reduce the risk of heart disease and enhance cognitive function. Theobromine, found in cacao, supports healthy blood flow and cardiovascular function while essential minerals like magnesium, iron, and zinc boost muscle and bone health, immune support, and energy production.

  • Improved mood
  • Consuming cacao can actually make you happier. Cacao contains a compound called PEA (phenethylamine) which triggers the release of endorphins and mood-enhancing neurochemicals in the brain which can create a sense of calm.

  • Enhanced mental focus and energy
  • If you’re looking to beat the 3pm slump, a cup of cacao could be just what the ticket. Pure cacao contains theobromine, a cardiovascular stimulant which can increase focus and alertness. It can also improve energy levels for an extended period without leaving you feeling overly wired.

    Cacao in the morning is a great way to start the day.

  • Regular bowel movements
  • If things could be better in the digestion department, cacao is high in dietary fibre which can help prevent constipation. As well as that, pure cacao is a great source of magnesium which draws water into your system for a smoother movement.

  • Reduced PMS and menstruation symptoms
  • With its unique composition, cacao offers relief on both physical and emotional levels during PMS (premenstrual syndrome) and menstruation.

    It contains magnesium, which can help relax the muscles and alleviate cramps, while serotonin naturally promotes the release of ‘feel-good’ hormones, contributing to overall emotional balance.

  • Spiritual wellbeing
  • Have you heard of ceremonial cacao? It might sound odd but this is when cacao is consumed as a warm beverage either in a group ceremony setting or as a private ritual at home, simply by setting a personal intention and practising gratitude as you enjoy it. And although ceremonial-grade cacao may look like hot chocolate, it has the potential to naturally enhance physical, mental, and spiritual well-being.

    My experience of cacao

    I’d love to say that I felt the effects of each and every one of the benefits listed above, and perhaps subconsciously, I did. But the thing I enjoyed most was the ritual element to it. At a certain point each evening, either John or I would call to whatever room the other was in and ask if they were ready for a cup of cacao. We would inevitably end up preparing it together, each silently (or not silently in my case) judging how much of the cacao block was used or the amount of spice added. I remember not loving the taste at the beginning - it’s not your average hot chocolate - but gradually becoming accustomed to it. When I told John I was writing this article and that the research was making me want to revisit it, he replied, ‘We should, why did we stop making that? It was great.’

    He’s right, it was.

    And just like that, our daily cacao habit is back in business.

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